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Worth a Thousand Words: Mummy Dearest

Figure 1. Image of one of the corridors of the Catacombs.
Figure 1. Image of one of the corridors of the Catacombs.

Have humans always suffered from the same kinds of health issues? When we age, do we experience the same aches and pains as our ancestors? Did our joints become stiff and painful back in the 1700s, just like they still do today? Researchers in Germany and Italy posed this question and attempted to answer it by scanning the hip bones of Sicilian friars from the 18th and 19th centuries. They looked for markers of osteoarthritis in the mummified remains of these former clergymen, and have now concluded that a specific type of bone marker, herniation pits on the femoral neck, should be considered when scientists examine remains for signs of that ailment. The results are published in this paper, “Herniation Pits in Human Mummies: A CT Investigation in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily.” You can see a larger version of the image here.


Herniation pits (HPs) of the femoral neck were first described in a radiological publication in 1982 as round to oval radiolucencies in the proximal superior quadrant of the femoral neck on anteroposterior radiographs of adults. In following early clinical publications, HPs were generally recognized as an incidental finding. In contrast, in current clinical literature they are mentioned in the context of femoroacetabular impingement (FAI) of the hip joint, which is known to cause osteoarthritis (OA). The significance of HPs in chronic skeletal disorders such as OA is still unclear, but they are discussed as a possible radiological indicator for FAI in a large part of clinical studies.

In this paleoradiological study we examined a sample of mummies from the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily, by a mobile computed tomography (CT) scanner. Evaluation of the CT examinations revealed HPs in six out of 16 (37.5%) adult male mummies.

The first aim of this study was to compare the characteristics of HPs shown in our mummy collection to the findings described in clinical literature. Thereby CT evaluation revealed that their osseous imaging characteristics are in accordance, consisting of round to oval subcortical lesions at the anterior femoral neck, clearly demarcated by a sclerotic margin.

The second aim was to introduce HPs to the paleoradiological and paleopathological methodology as an entity that underwent a renaissance from an incidental finding to a possible radiological indicator of FAI in the clinical situation. As FAI plays an important role in the development of OA of the hip, which is a very common finding in human skeletal remains, HPs should always be considered in paleoradiological evaluation of hip joint diseases.

Citation: Panzer S, Piombino-Mascali D, Zink AR (2012) Herniation Pits in Human Mummies: A CT Investigation in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36537. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036537

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